Since 9/11, the global security community has drastically improved its ability to detect and prevent aircraft hijackings. So when news broke earlier this week that an unnamed individual had taken control of Egypt Air Flight 821, the horrific event unfolding before the world's eyes was less a novelty than a tragic throwback to the 1970s and 1980s, a time when terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Black September frequently resorted to hijackings to make one political point or another — or, especially in Hezbollah's case, to extort the U.S. government to release prisoners.
Fortunately this time the explosive vest was fake, and the man, a mentally unstable divorcee, was acting alone. After a safe landing in Cyprus and an orderly release of the passengers, hijacker Seif Eldin Mustafa fell into Cypriot police custody, and the media frenzy surrounding the whole affair came to an anticlimactic end. Even so, the event is a testament to one of the international community's greatest achievements. When faced with a common enemy, the world's security services — so often at odds with one another — find ways to cooperate closely in the name of global security.
Coming to the Rescue
Thanks to heightened security, no terrorist group has mounted another major aircraft hijacking since the attacks in 2001. But I was a federal agent in the heyday of such assaults, back when we designed many of the hostage rescue procedures still in use today. In my work on various hijacking cases, including Kuwait Airways 221, Pan Am 73, Kuwait Airways 422 and TWA 847, I saw firsthand the madness that ensues behind the scenes when the news breaks that terrorists have taken control of an airliner.
Almost immediately, the United States would put a plane in the air carrying the U.S. Foreign Emergency Support Team, a collection of agents and technical advisers en route to the hijackers' landing country of choice. Depending on the host nation's capabilities, the help we offer may be direct, and our professionals handle the hostage negotiations. Other times we might act in more of an advisory capacity. Either way, we are rarely the only ones reaching out with tactical aid. In the case of Egypt Air Flight 821, the British likely offered their services, and because an Egyptian airline was involved, Egypt may just as well have involved itself in rescue efforts. Deciding which nations are going to handle what tasks always poses something of a logistical nightmare, and all the while we have to keep the channels of intelligence and diplomatic communication wide open.
The facts are usually still coming to light even when we already have our response teams in the air. Often, the hijacked aircraft hasn't yet landed, and those in control may change course multiple times. A fast response — even with limited information — is essential.
Refocusing on Prevention
With the resolution of the crisis, a new phase of international cooperation begins. If U.S. citizens were involved, the FBI and other U.S. agencies have the right to gather the facts of the case, but the follow-up investigation usually tries the patience of everyone involved. Governments refuse to release evidence. Everyone is eager to protect their jurisdiction or their country's citizens. Once, I even had to go through Interpol to request autopsy reports from Iran, at a time when the U.S. diplomatic relationship with the Islamic Republic was nonexistent.
But perhaps even more important than putting together a case to prosecute the hijackers, investigators need to identify where preventive security measures fell short. Mustafa's explosive vest may have been a hoax, but the fact that he was able to sneak it onto the airplane at all may highlight serious gaps in Egyptian airport security. The event should cause Egypt's security professionals to sit up and take notice, and cooperating foreign agencies can also use the opportunity to find kinks in their response procedures.
Responding effectively in hostage situations takes an incredible team effort. In an aircraft hijacking, members of hundreds of organizations crossing national boundaries have to find a way to come together, distribute the work and communicate their findings without stepping on one another's toes. The whole process can be frustrating, bureaucratic and hectic. But the reward comes in the end, when the perpetrators are in custody and, if possible, the last passenger exits the plane alive and well. In this case, the Cypriots should be applauded for a job well done.
Production Editor: Margaret Fox